Council fights for lower housing targets in Local Plan

Zoom screenshot of Welwyn Hatfield Councillor Dr Sunny Thusu

Councillor Dr Sunny Thusu led the opposition to all four plans at a Local Plan meeting on January 13, 2022. - Credit: Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council

Welwyn Hatfield Council is pushing back on Local Plan housing targets for the borough after councillors said they had been “held hostage” by the planning inspector.

The council was told it must build 15,200 homes between 2016 and 2036, but councillors have argued that the number is disproportionate for the borough and would result in significant building on the Green Belt.

The step will see the council working toward a reduced target of 13,277, which had previously been set in 2019, rather than proposing any additional sites for consideration in a final plan.

The move will need to be backed by the cabinet and full council later this month before being adopted.

Those opposed to the motion warned the council it could lead to the whole plan being thrown out, leaving the authority open to ‘planning by appeal’.

At Thursday’s meeting of the Cabinet Planning and Parking Panel, councillors were presented with four lists of potential sites to include in the final plan on top of those agreed by the council and found sound by an inspector last year.

Read more: Welwyn villagers warn of 'irreparable damage' if housing targets go ahead

However, Cllr Dr Sunny Thusu (Conservative, Welwyn West) proposed the motion to reject all four options presented to members and said he “couldn’t look at residents in the face” if he voted for a plan which would see significant building on the Green Belt.

To meet the 15,200 target, all but one of the options presented included controversial plans to build a new 1,500 home village on Green Belt land in Symondshyde – despite councillors making clear they no longer wanted those plans to come forward.

Symondshyde Green.

All but one of the options presented to WHBC included controversial plans to build a new 1,500 home village on Green Belt land in Symondshyde. - Credit: John Gardener

Officers noted the housing need for the borough had been reviewed three times, and the government’s planning inspector, Melvyn Middleton, previously made clear he would find the plan unsound if it did not include provision for 15,200 homes but councillors said they were satisfied with taking the risk.

Speaking during the meeting, Cllr Thusu said: “How can I possibly say let’s build [option] D because the inspector wants this when I have so many people – people who don’t vote for me – against it? Because we would then have to take the can.”

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Despite a warning that if the plan is found unsound it could open the door to speculative planning applications and an increase in appeals, Cllr Thusu said members had been elected to represent residents’ views.

He added: “Ultimately I can listen to ‘this is going to happen’, but let’s say for example we go ahead with 15,200, we’re going to have [Development Management Committees] after DMC meetings with people objecting and it going to appeal anyway – I can guarantee you that.

“The amount of feeling that has gone into the 13,277 [target] and now the 15,200 will mean every application whether it be Digswell, whether it be Welham Green or Symondshyde, will have people coming together [in opposition] and, just like with the BioPark and others, the DMC will probably say ‘we agree with you’ – because we do agree with it.”

Executive member for planning Cllr Stephen Boulton said it was “the most difficult decision” the council has had to make in his time as a member, and while building on the Green Belt was inevitable, it was important to “try and preserve what we can”.

Labour Cllr Glyn Hayes (Hatfield Central) said the council was being “held hostage” by the inspector and members were now unable to make significant decisions about the plan and supported Cllr Thusu’s proposal.

The Liberal Democrat group supported the refusal of all four options presented to councillors but did not vote in favour of the motion to reduce the target.

Cllr Jane Quinton (Lib Dem, Panshanger) said she was “very concerned” by the proposal adding: “Even though we are between a rock and a hard place deciding where to build houses, I think we are in more danger of planning by appeal.

"I think I need to hear from more people because I don’t think this is a sensible approach.”

Later in the meeting, Cllr Quinton proposed a five-year review point in the plan, which would allow the council to make changes to the plan once it is adopted and potentially return land to the Green Belt if necessary. However, there was no support from other councillors for the idea.

Councillors unanimously agreed to refuse all four recommendations for new sites, with the motion to return to the previous 13,277 housing target passing despite two no against and one abstention.

The recommendation from the panel will need to be approved by the council’s cabinet and by full council before becoming the council’s position on the plan.

If adopted, the council would use the sites previously submitted to the inspector as the basis of the reduced plan but further work would be required before submission to the inspector.